Like many other men, Swann had a naturally lazy mind, and lacked imagination. He knew perfectly well as a general truth, that human life is full of contrasts, but in the case of each individual human being he imagined all that part of his or her life with which he was not familiar as being identical with the part with which he was. He imagined what was kept secret from him in the light of what was revealed. At such times as he spent with Odette, if their conversation turned upon an indelicate act committed, or an indelicate sentiment expressed by some third person, she would condemn them by virtue of the same moral principles which Swann had always heard expressed by his own parents, and to which he himself had remained faithful; and then she would arrange her flowers, would sip her tea, would inquire about Swann’s work. So Swann extended those attitudes to fill the rest of her life, and reconstructed those actions when he wished to form a picture of the moments in which he and she were apart. If anyone had portrayed her to him as she was, or rather as she had been for so long, with himself, but had substituted some other man, he would have been distressed, for such a portrait would have struck him as lifelike. But to suppose that she went to brothels, that she indulged in orgies with other women, that she led the crapulous existence of the most abject, the most contemptible of mortals—would be an insane aberration, for the realisation of which, thank heaven, the chrysanthemums that he could imagine, the daily cups of tea, the virtuous indignation left neither time nor place.
Edmund Hillary’s interest in beekeeping later led him to commission Michael Ayrton to cast a golden sculpture in the form of a honeycomb—a reference to Daedalus’ invention of the lost-wax process. This was placed in Hillary’s New Zealand garden, where his bees took it over as a hive and ‘filled it with honey and their young.’
Anonymous asked: what caused your recent lincoln fascination? how do you feel about his probable racism? how do you reconcile the ethical black eyes of otherwise great human souls? which books about Lincoln are you reading? do you recommend any of them?
There’s nothing probable about Lincoln and racism. For nearly all of his life he believed that black people were morally and intellectually inferior to white people. For much of his time as president he advocated forcibly removing every black person in America to some tropical colony in Central America or Africa. This had to be done, he thought, because black people had a temperament unique to their race and that this temperament was inherently unsuited to the kind of culture white people had made for themselves in the US. The best you can say for Lincoln’s racism is that it was inherited. A collection of assumptions that were never tested because 19th Century American society was tuned to prohibit Lincoln’s ever meeting a black person on terms of equality.
On July 30th, 1863 Lincoln did eventually meet a black person he had to take seriously, in the form of Frederick Douglass. Whatever Lincoln’s inner feelings about black people may have been before this meeting—feelings, as distinct from actions, because nobody has ever been able to uncover an instance of bigotry in Lincoln’s behavior—after the meeting they must have been revolutionized:
- The colonization scheme was dropped the moment a delegation of black americans told him they didn’t want to go back to Africa.
- Lincoln repeatedly defeated the racism of Washington police—as they tried to keep Douglass out of the White House during parties—by spotting Douglass in the crowd and calling him over.
- On August 19th, 1864, Lincoln asked Douglass to come to the White House for a meeting about black soldiers in the Union army. During their discussion Lincoln’s aide John Nicolay came in twice to say that the Governor of Connecticut was waiting outside. Lincoln told Nicolay, ‘tell Governor Buckingham to wait, for I want to have a long talk with my friend Frederick Douglass.’ Despite Douglass’ famous pride and self-assurance, he begged Lincoln to dismiss him, and see the Governor instead. Lincoln said, ‘No, I would like to talk to you now. The Governor can wait.’ Something unprecedented was happening in Lincoln’s mind, not only that he kept a powerful Republican governor waiting so he could talk to a black man but also to tell that governor that he was being kept waiting so that the President could talk to a black man.
- (Douglass was nothing if not a devastating judge of character, and many of his descriptions of the great abolitionists relate men who persist in treating him like a servant or a child. In talking to Lincoln however, he said that ‘in all my interviews with Mr. Lincoln I was impressed with his entire freedom from popular prejudice against the colored race. He was the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference between himself and myself, of the difference of color’)
Lincoln’s abandonment of what we would today call racism gets to the heart of why he continues to fascinate. Lincoln actually possessed an ability that the rest of us only flatter ourselves to claim: the capacity to change into a better person when one realizes that one has been wrong. The thing that gets mythologized as ‘Lincoln’s flawlessness’ is actually his profound grasp of his own flaws, and his ability to tear them out by the root once he recognized them. You can count on one hand the number of people who could do that, and remain that, even as they made it to the top of their society’s political heap. After all, Socrates preferred begging to whatever it takes to overcome distaste for ambition. Self-forgiveness, or something.
But Lincoln is more than interesting. There is something very nearly mystical about him. And like all genuine mysteries, words can only be piled around it to a certain height before they peel away from its sides and topple back down on you.
Lincoln had an amazing grasp—tho’ ‘grasp’ is exactly the wrong word to use in this context—of the nothingness out of which all proficiency and genius emerge, and into which everything genuinely brave has to march. His moral genius is an example of this. When he decided that racist assumptions about black people could not be sustained in the face of his respect for Douglass, Lincoln was demonstrating an interior bravery that is difficult for us to comprehend. Nowadays the difference between being racist and being good is all too obvious. The moral field has lines painted on it and there is no shortage of shrill referees to point out errors. If being good is a function of bravery, not being racist in the present day is about as tepid a moral accomplishment as you can achieve. But imagine taking the first step out of wrong-headedness and into justice… The only thing I can think to compare it to is Einstein realizing that not only does Classical Physics have a ceiling but that if you’re brave enough to drill through it, the nothingness beyond puts wonder to shame. The kind of bravery it takes to be a moral pioneer is something other than courage. It’s closer to being at home in the unknown and at peace with a certain kind of interior nothingness.
Lincoln is frequently heckled for being passive. His contemporaries called him a bumbling feet-dragger. Historians snipe him as indecisive.
But in reality, Lincoln is right and his critics are wrong.
Lincoln knew that the course of events is random and unknowable. And so he wasted no time trying to be an historian of the present: trying to identify the cause and logic of an unfolding event so as to be its master. And then to act in a way that can be explicitly defended. This is the plodding rationality that historians commend as decisive. (Because only the ploddingly rational can suffer the kind of consensus that historians deem truth.) Rather, Lincoln was wise. And being wise, he submerged himself in problems to the point of losing himself:
Edwin Stanton repeatedly snubbed and insulted Lincoln while both were lawyers retained for a patent case in the 1850’s, and despite this being their only personal interaction before Stanton joined the cabinet, in 1862 Lincoln entrusted him with the War Department. This is not just a forgiving nature. This is Lincoln entering into problems of the Civil War so deeply as to perceive a fundamental truth about winning it. And this was that logistical genius would be every bit as necessary as generalship if the North’s manufacturing advantage was to be made into a weapon. Materiel advantage was useless if the bureaucracy that directed its movement was inefficient. Lincoln recognized Stanton as the hard-driving detail-obsessive needed to direct just such a bureaucracy. This is a perfect example of a type of nothingness that utterly defines Lincoln: cold selflessness.
The more you discover about the guy, the more you wish that historians would just shut up, and restrict their analyses to Taoist commentaries on episodes from his life,
Bk I, XV
Of old he who was well versed in the way
Was minutely subtle, mysteriously comprehending,
And too profound to be known.
It is because he cannot be known
That he can only be given a makeshift description:
Tentative, as if fording a river in winter,
Hesitant as if in fear of his neighbors;
Formal like a guest;
Falling apart like thawing ice;
Thick like the uncarved block;
Vacant like the valley;
Murky like muddy water.
Who can be muddy and yet, settling, slowly become limpid?
Who can be at rest and yet, stirring, slowly come to life?
He who holds fast to this way
Desires not to be full.
It is because he is not full
That he can be worn and yet newly made.
Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
Multiple biography of Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, William Henry Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates plus a little about Edwin Stanton. Idolizing of Lincoln. Somewhat bitchy towards Mary. Fair to the good Seward. Fair to the pathetic Chase. Ehh to the boring Bates. Very incisive on the heartbreakingly repressed, fragile and cracklingly overbearing Stanton.
Lincoln, David Herbert Donald
Nerdy and weakwilled writer who attempts self-absolution by passing repeated judgement (‘Passive Abe!’) on Lincoln. Unsurprisingly, this single criticism is repeated so often that it becomes clear that there’s some transference going on. Very factual, masculine and timid both of historical insight and the sublime insight that can come from involving yrself with yr subject by bonds of sympathy.
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu (Li Er?), D. C. Lau trans.
Literal translation from professional sinologist. The Tao Te Ching is extant in several manuscript traditions. Lau’s original translation is based on the the most ancient and traditional text. That translation was later revised in light of the Mawangdui archaeological finds of 1973. Frequently these latter finds are completely at odds with the traditional version of the book, and Lau is sometimes at pains to reconcile them with his previous work.
Lao Tzu: Te-Tao Ching, Lao Tsu (Li Er?), Robert Hendricks trans.
An entirely fresh translation using the recently discovered texts from Mawangdui without reference to other manuscript traditions. The most important innovation is the reversal of the order of the two books with Te Ching preceding Tao Ching.
The Lincoln Anthology, Harold Holzer ed.
Wide-ranging collection of extracts from writings about Lincoln. Much of the fun comes from how exhaustive and clever the editor has been (Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx, Victor Hugo, Mario Cuomo…)
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858, Don Fehrenbacher ed.
the only president to rival Herman Melville
Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865, Don Fehrenbacher ed.
Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose, Charles Hamilton, Lloyd Ostendorf eds.
Infinitely better than any biography for how much of Lincoln’s presence you get from having every known photograph of him in your hands.